As a successful business, it is important for us to really believe in what we do, to present proof of the quality of my services and products. We sell extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) and we truly believe it can considerably enhance my consumers’ health and wellbeing. What is the proof of that? There are plenty of scientific studies to back it up but we have something else more personal and convincing. It’s ourselves, our family whose longevity has been increased by lengthy consumption of EVOO. More specifically, it’s my mother Maria Giannakos who passed away last year at the age of 108. Her long life prompted a letter from Queen Elizabeth II of England herself.
Her story isn’t only about EVOO, it’s also a life philosophy, a healthy and simple way of living of the times far back. My mother was born Maria Anagostakos around 1912 in a small village south of Sparta, Greece. It was a turbulent time for modern Greece and my mother endured hardships since a very early age. After the third grade, she was forced to stop going to school in order to help the family with farm work. Harsh as it sounds, there was little her parents could do: they were poor and had up to eight children. They only had a small house with two bedrooms where everybody slept together on the floor. Food wasn’t plentiful: a chicken was enough to be considered a sumptuous feast.
A 12-year-old Maria would collect wild nuts like pinecones, walnuts or acorns, and sun-dried them. Then she and her family would load them onto their horse, walk to Gytheio 20 kilometers away to sell them, all in the darkness of night. (“Now you are scared not to get killed inside you own house”, my mother remarked years later). When she turned 17, Maria became a dressmaker, weaving and sewing clothing, blankets, and more. Despite poverty, her life was full of love and optimism. “When I was 20 years old, I was very pretty, the best one in the village, good youth and a good heart, a nice family”, as she put it. But her life was about to get better.
At the age of 22, she got married with my father Evangelos Giannakos and moved to the village of Vasilaki in Peleponnese, southern Greece. Now she had a 300-year-old tower house and another special addition: the olive groves of many 1000-year-old olive trees that had been in possession of Giannakos for several generations. As a resourceful wife, she helped keep her home tidy and her husband’s business going. The family’s garden and livestock provided a source of fresh vegetables and meat. I remembered that my mom, also a great cook, once told him that: “You don’t have to buy your greens; they grow wild. Just pick your food for the day”. And pick his greens he did. Of course, a liberal dose of homemade olive oil was always the top ingredient. We never measured how much olive oil consumed, “It just flows”. We even drink olive oil, our New York International Olive Oil Competition, Award winning 7Thirty we just launched is the source of our health. Very strong flavour and health benefits starting your morning with just a tablespoon.
Having a heart of gold, my mother not only took care of her own kids but she also fed other children in town. While the Giannakos olive oil was very popular around Peleponnese, Maria was ready to provide it, as well as food, to people in need, whoever they were. That really mattered a lot during the World War II German occupation of Greece: both Greeks and Germans would come to the Giannakos asking for food. That said, Maria wasn’t a typical docile housewife at all. In 1952, when Greek women were granted suffrage, my mother was president of the women’s voting organization in her village.
When my father died of cancer at age 56, everything changed. Shortly afterwards, four out of her five children gradually emigrated to Canada. I stayed with her to care for the house and olive groves. But then I had to serve in the Greek army. Upon my discharge in 1969, I left for Canada too but this time, I brought along Mom who had been persuaded to reunite with her children. Her life moved on to a new chapter.
My mother spent the next 50 years of her life with in Ottawa, Canada’s capital. But it doesn’t mean she cut ties with Greece. She had gone back to Greece every other year when their olive groves were about to turn ripe (that is when olives are at their best). Only the traditional method was used: Maria herself whacked down olives with a stick and collected them. She would pick some good olives to eat, the rest would be pressed and extracted. Olive oil was a part of Maria’s life, and she made it a part of her children’s and grandchildren as well. She flew back to Ottawa with bottles of homemade olive oil for her family and friends, giving them a source of healthy and nutritious fat. In fact, that was how Illias and Sons EVOO came into existence, as world-of-mouth recommendations made people crave for our high-quality olive oil.
Maria celebrated her 100th birthday in Canada with dozens of family members. She had 11 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren, which she was very happy about. She eventually gave up flying back and forth between two countries and resided permanently in Greece. Even in her final years, she was still mentally and physically sound. Her memory was as good as ever, she could tell her grandchildren and great-grandchildren about her childhood, a time when life was harsh, but we always had each other. Upon her passing, Maria was laid to rest next to Evagelos in Vasilaki, Greece.
So that is the secret of Maria’s incredibly long life. Olive oil played an integral role there is something else at work. Back in her days, it was common to eat homegrown, homecooked food. Nowadays this type of food is labeled as “organic” and sold for sky-high prices. When my grandmother was young, hard labor kept people fit. Now it’s expensive exercise equipment and gym membership. Perhaps if wishing to live longer, we should take a step back and embrace simplicity.
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